Family Vacations to Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C. U.S. Capitol Building
U.S. Capitol Building (Corbis)

Washington, D.C. Family Travel Tips

  • See the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights at the National Archives.
  • Learn about flight at the National Air and Space Museum.
  • Admire gold shields, feathered regalia, woven baskets, and beaded saddlebags at the National Museum of the American Indian.
  • Find out about bugs, bones, blue whales, and big gems at the National Museum of Natural History.
  • Test your spy skills at the International Spy Museum.
  • Cycle past the memorials and monuments with Bike the Sites.

Washington, D.C., is a capital city brimming with the totemic markers and monuments of a nation's birth, plus the real-time wheeling-dealing of democracy in action. Get within reading distance of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights at the National Archives; potentially rub shoulders with politicians and their aides—maybe even the Prez—by touring the U.S. Capitol or circumnavigating the White House and its grounds (building tours are available by pre-arrangement for groups of ten or more); or pause at the Washington Monument and the Lincoln, Jefferson, Vietnam, Korean War, and World War II memorials to remember the people and events that have shaped the country.

At the hugely popular (and therefore, often crowded) National Air and Space Museum, see the original 1903 Wright Flyer, spacesuits, lunar vehicles, and a moon rock. Here you can also view 150 objects from the National Museum of American History, including Dorothy’s ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, Edison’s lightbulb, the Greensboro lunch counter, and Thomas Jefferson’s bible. The American History museum facility is closed for renovations until 2008.

Find out about bugs, bones, blue whales, and lots more at the National Museum of Natural History, home to the 45.5-carat Hope Diamond as well as a 23.1-carat Burmese ruby. The National Museum of the American Indian serves as a place to honor and understand the cultures of indigenous peoples from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego. In each main gallery, various nations tell their stories through objects such as dazzling gold shields, feathered regalia, woven baskets, beaded saddlebags, and pottery.

At the National Zoo, meet our country's symbol at the Bald Eagle Refuge, find out how orangutans solve problems at the Think Tank, and see local A-list celeb Tai Shan, the recently arrived fur-ball panda cub (reserve a timed ticket ahead of time—and expect lines!). Espionage is the name of the game at the International Spy Museum, where you get the lowdown on fictional cloak-and-dagger characters like James Bond, glimpse real gadgets and tricks used by Cold War spies, and learn the stories of unlikely heroes like Julia Child, who parlayed fame into occasional fact-finding.

Take advantage of spring and summer's great weather to enjoy the outdoors (though note that summer humidity can sometimes be brutal). Bicycle or glide by the monuments and memorials, White House, and U.S. Capitol with Bike the Sites or on a tour with City Segway (ages 16 and up). During evening tours, the city's illuminated structures look especially impressive. Also, you can paddle the traffic-free Potomac River on Atlantic Kayak's half-day tours (alternatively, rent a canoe or kayak from Thompson Boat Center near Georgetown and take your own tour).

Another new arrival to the D.C. scene is Major League Baseball's Washington Nationals. After a popular inaugural season in 2005, the Nats will continue to play at the city's RFK Stadium while a new home is being planned down on the D.C. waterfront. Cheer them on, or root for soccer's D.C. United, who share playing space at RFK.

Music is also a big part of the city's summer beat. Visit the zoo on a summer Thursday and stay for the Sunset Serenade, a free musical performance on Lion/Tiger Hill from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Listen to U.S. military bands perform at the U.S. Capitol's west steps at 8 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays. Jazz in the Garden at the National Gallery of Art's outdoor sculpture garden is another great way to wind down after a hard day's pavement pounding or gallery hopping. Concerts take place, come rain or shine, Fridays from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. late May to mid-September.

Tip: Take young kids to the Puppet Company Playhouse (, in nearby Glen Echo, Maryland.

Recommended Side Trips: Alexandria, Mount Vernon Plantation (both Virginia), Baltimore, Annapolis, Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg (all Maryland)'s resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 3 Oct 2007 | Last Updated: 9 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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